The ongoing debate over the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is heating up again. Over the weekend, National Public Radio ran a major report on the subject, with several scientific sources arguing that at the very least, FDA needs to mandate the collection of hard data on antibiotic use in agriculture.

No amount of data would settle the issue, of course, but as NPR’s blog post summarizing the segment phrased it, “There’s no comprehensive source of data on how doctors prescribe antibiotics to people, and there’s even less information about drugs that are given to chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle.”

Tough to argue with that statement.

At the same time, Donald Kennedy, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, wrote a scathing commentary in The Washington Post, which reminded readers that “[FDA’s] national advisory committee recommended in 1977 that we eliminate an agricultural practice that threatened human health. Routinely feeding low doses of antibiotics to healthy livestock . . . was breeding drug-resistant bacteria that could infect people.”

To date, industry’s response to these most recent (and most other) attacks has been predictable, and consists mainly of either claiming that a ban on sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics would cause even worse animal health problems—some truth in that—or that responsible  use of “health maintenance products” in livestock production simply isn’t  that big of a problem.

Or both.

Unfortunately, that strategy hasn’t worked to sway the public, and there’s an explanation why, if you’ll permit the use of an analogy.

Let’s say the controversy is air pollution, and there are strident critics among activist groups and within the scientific community who point to automobile traffic in congested urban areas as being a prime culprit in causing chronic smog that is damaging to citizens’ health, particularly those with respiratory conditions.

The activist agenda might include the following:

  • Investment in public transit to reduce single-car usage
  • Legislation to mandate a significant change in mileage and/or emissions standards
  • A switch to vehicles running on alternative fuels, or maybe a wholesale switch to all-electric cars

And let’s say you’re the leader of an automobile dealer’s association, responsible for fostering a marketplace climate that supports the sale of as many cars as possible for your members. None of the proposals above are necessarily good for car dealers, so how would you respond?

You could simply deny that automobiles are the primary cause of air pollution, and point to diesel trucks, trains and heavy construction equipment as far more egregious contributors—at least of particulate, if not photochemical pollution.

Or you could argue against any alternatives to single-occupancy, gasoline-powered automobiles as the primary mode of urban transportation as being too expensive, too cumbersome, too radical a change—any semi-plausible reason to argue against changing how people get from point A to point B.

But would either of these positions be defensible? Your fellow auto dealers would likely applaud your stance, but would car buyers be swayed? Would either message be effective in leveraging public opinion? Doubtful, because it’s well-documented that cars do, in fact, contribute to smog production. In this case, trying to point the finger elsewhere simply wouldn’t work.

A three-step process

There are strong parallels between that example and antibiotic use in animal agriculture. Yet too many industry spokespeople insist on laying the blame for the increase in bacterial resistance on doctors “overprescribing antibiotics” when they’re not necessary—although who among us has ever argued against a physician ordering a course of antibiotics for a child or loved one when they’re ill? Or they try to float the idea that a ban on routine antibiotic use would cause worse problems than those with which industry is already confronted.

Not to mention that banning sub-therapeutic antibiotics would devastate producers, cost people their jobs and drive up the price of meat. Probably drive up your taxes and take away your freedom, too.

Now, like the arguments against alternative fuels or alternative modes of transportation as anti-smog measures, there is value in noting both the potential problems as well as the expected costs a wholesale ban on animal ag use of antibiotics would likely trigger.

But the advice to either our hypothetical auto dealer rep or to industry spokespeople is the same: They’re both skipping steps one and two of the PR 101 playbook and going straight to step three, a shortcut that just doesn’t work.

Step one, of course, is admitting involvement, if not culpability. People won’t even tune in long enough to be persuaded if a spokesperson starts by laying the blame elsewhere. There is a definitive association between increased use of low-level antibiotics and a rise in the resistance of some clinically important microbial pathogens. That’s not to say producers are the causative factor, but to deny the connection is disingenuous, at best.

Step two is to express sincere concern and a commitment to finding a solution that respects everyone’s interests. That’s harder to communicate than step one, but it’s even more important that such sentiments be genuine. If someone connected to the problem doesn’t care—or appears not to care—whatever words come out of his or her mouth, no matter how articulate, will be be perceived as hollow and ultimately suspect.

Exhibit A: Most politicians. Listen to them deliver speeches, or read their oh-so-sincere press releases, and you can’t help but crank up the cynical meter.

Finally, after acknowledging an industry’s role—and expressing an honest commitment to finding a fix—step three is to begin laying out the parameters of a potential solution. Only then is it appropriate to begin noting the negatives that sudden or severe change might cause. Only then is it effective to make the sound science argument, only after you’ve gotten people sympathetic enough to actually pay attention to technical details.

That goes for members of the media, Members of Congress or simply members of the community.

Unless that three-step sequence is followed, no amount of talking points, commentaries or press releases will move the needle in a positive direction with consumers.

And ultimately, they’re the audience that needs to be swayed.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.